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“Gestural Abstractions” – Alexander Provan

According to a recent raft of Apple patents, the gestural patterns established for touch-screen devices may be a prelude to 3-D interfaces with sensors monitoring the movement of the hands and head, detaching the fingers from the screen and appropriating such everyday gestures as waving good-bye or tipping one’s hat to an acquaintance. Galloway insists that the interface is not a single object—consider the various combinations of screens, controllers, data, algorithms, protocols, and so on—but a technique of mediation. And so rather than dwell on the formal differences between the wearable Google Glass and the touchable iPad, we might think about the common effect of such seemingly divergent technologies: to mark each individual’s sensorium as an agglomeration of data points, a constellation of associated images and actions and GPS coordinates, a commodifiable expression of identity.

Flusser believed that our gadgets might serve noble purposes if only we could reprogram them—which is to say reprogram ourselves, the users. Then we might engage in the socialized production of information (rather than in its vacuous circulation), leading to radical democratic structures. Play would replace work, and society would become a “school for freedom” in which everyone is a creator and critic. But this cybernetic vision has famously become the domain of Silicon Valley venture capitalism, and instead of a “positive utopia” we have the monetization of “valuable behaviors.” In the patent wars we can glimpse a possible future in which all the fingertips and eyeballs of the world are united as workers in the everywhere-factory of the image.

Flusser hoped the “fascistic circuitry” that was likely to result from such a scenario would be superseded by a “positive utopia” where people would assume full responsibility for making sense of a world deprived of objective coherence—primarily through technical images, “computations of concepts” rather than observations of objects. What we got instead was Facebook, fascistic circuitry in positive-utopia garb, where networked meaning-making is marshaled to commodify affect.

One recent Apple patent maps out a series of gestures involving minuscule slides and directional shifts, with such evocative names as Scoop, Infinity, Star, Crossbar, and “Ohm.” Apple has made clear that these proprietary finger movements will be used in the manipulation of images and video; surely it won’t be long before we are cutting and pasting ourselves into branded stock environments with a pinch and an Ohm, then pushing the result to the cloud. While some humble tablet may yet provide salvation for the book, the furious patenting of touch-screen hand motions suggests the ascendance of generative rather than contemplative experiences, and image files rather than text. Just as ergonomics shaped the workplaces of the twentieth century, from assembly lines to cockpits to cubicles, interaction design is shaping the economy of the twenty-first century, priming us for data-rich, personalized expressions rather than efficient, standardized motions.

But amid the attrition, we may also come to notice the ways in which our interactions with digital interfaces are changing, with increasingly complex functions facilitated by a new level of haptic choreography, the goal being to integrate seamlessly sensation, cognition, and computation. The companies introducing advanced swiping techniques into our mundane interactions with digital images are likely to capture and commodify the information produced by such gestures. This means making them feel inconspicuous, natural. And so even as we’re being trained to adhere to these serpentine haptic routines, we will need to forget—if only in our muscles—having ever swiped otherwise.

Gestural Abstractions – Alexander

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